The Future of the Scholarly Book – ten take-aways

Consistent metadata near the conference venueThe recent ALPSP conference on the Future of the Scholarly Book offered many lessons for publishers, reassuring some that they’re heading in the right direction, while challenging others. Here are ten things I took away from the conference. take-aways below.

Make sure you know what you (and your colleagues) are talking about…

One problem with new kinds of digital products can be the lack of an established vocabulary to discuss them: when you refer to ‘enhanced ebooks’, for instance, do you mean the same thing as your colleagues?

Jon Walmsley explained how he and his colleagues at Wiley had established a framework language to minimise misunderstanding when they talked about digital products: book 1.0 was print; book 2.0 was a flat digital version of that print product – a simple ebook – and 3.0 was a new digital product that did everything that 1.0 or 2.0 could, but better. The terminology wasn’t perfect, but it ensured that they all knew broadly what each other meant.

Nobody can quite agree about the crisis of the monograph…

The ‘crisis of the monograph’ was a subject that might have benefitted from such a framework language. Though much discussed, the precise nature of the crisis varied considerably depending upon the speaker. For Antony Cond of Liverpool University Press, the problem lay in the difficulty of getting published. My former coleague Richard Fisher pointed out, however, that monograph and coursebook output in the UK has doubled in the past ten years. Could the problem instead be one of over-production instead? That was certainly the view of Tim Williams, MD of Edward Elgar, who noted that as collections became more important to publishers than the individual titles that comprised them, barriers to publication might lower still further – with questionable consequences.

Bespoke solutions don’t just have high development costs…

As Jon Walmsley noted, the problem with developing bespoke digital solutions for all your top tier titles is not just that it involves high development costs, but also that it places unrealistic demands upon your sales force, who are expected to master, demonstrate, and sell too wide a range of products. Establishing a small number of scalable solutions to cover as many areas and needs as possible will not only cut development costs but also increase your ability to sell those solutions.

We need to look beyond our traditional markets…

One recurring theme at the conference was the importance of finding new audiences. With impact an increasingly important consideration for scholarly authors, the ability to maximise influence and impact by reaching a wider, non-traditional audience offered an opportunity for a publisher to add value for an author and to differentiate itself from its competitors, Antony Cond suggested. Policy Press’s new trade list, director Alison Shaw explained, had been created for precisely this reason. Though, as Roheena Anand of the Royal Society of Chemistry noted, the margins on trade publications might be lower, they nonetheless played a key role in fulfilling the mission of many scholarly societies.

Social sharing is key to building your audience…

Toby Green of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shared some of the lessons from his own experience of making their content more shareable. OECD readership figures, he told us, had gone through the roof since the organisation started making their data more fragmentable and allowed third parties to embed it on their own sites. And not only did embedding content deliver a wider readership, but it also produced wider and richer data on how it had been used, and by whom. For Alison Shaw, creating additional shareable content that complemented the key proposition was vital: infographics, for instance.

We should focus more than ever on our users…

Almost every speaker shared experiences of working with their audience to find out more about their workflow and particular needs. Antonia Seymour of Wiley noted the influence of research into customer needs into the new digital edition of the Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures: interviews with a range of practitioners suggested that what most users wanted were quick and accurate answers to their questions. Consequently, the new edition places the search function front and centre.

Seymour’s colleague David Hughes suggested that usage had to be the key focus for reference publishers, since excellence should be a given. For libraries, usage was usually the deciding factor in purchasing, and publishers needed to give more thought to the pain points that diminished that usage. Researching user workflows remains a vital part of this process.

Content is just content… except when it isn’t…

For end users, Toby Green argued, the distinctions between journal articles, books, grey literature, and databases are becoming increasingly meaningless. By insisting upon dividing up content according to such analogue forms, publishers just make it more difficult for users to find what they need. For many librarians, though, form still matters: as Walmsley noted, many libraries still hold separate budgets for journals and books, and publishers’ sales teams need to accommodate this.

Innovation isn’t everything…

For most of the speakers, innovation was most valuably a tool towards a greater focus on the core proposition. Antony Cond quoted Rick Anderson – don’t bet on innovation, bet on relevance – while Daniel Pollock of Jordan suggested that infrastructure was more often the solution to publishing problems than technology. Jon Walmsley argued that managing innovation, though it might seem oxymoronic, was vital to success.

The scholarly book has proved remarkably resistant to disruption – so far…

Richard Fisher began his talk by suggesting that little had actually changed in recent years in academic book publishing. Though UK government agencies were more generally taking a greater and prescriptive role in publishing through Open Access mandates, this had thus far resulted in very little cultural change in scholarly book publishing – there had so far been no PLoS for scholarly books, and most of the big players of thirty years ago remained in place.

Despite this, numerous speakers identified potential threats on the horizon. For Fisher, the biggest of these was likely to be found in recent European rulings on intellectual property; for Ian Stoneham of the Institute of Engineering and Technology, patron-driven acquisition and innovation from third parties around our own content offered key future challenges.

The Academic Book of the Future will be a useful project to engage with…

Led by Sam Rayner of University College, London, this two-year research project aims to generate new evidence and dialogue around scholarly communication. Starting from the question “What do scholars want?” and examining the roles and purposes of academic books, it will address topics including peer review, open access, editing, and the role of the digital academic.

With Rayner’s team’s research expected both to contribute to a wider debate and to influence policy decisions, this is a project all players will want to be represented in. One high-profile aspect of the project will be Academic Book Week, taking place this year from 9th-16th November. Acting as a showcase of academic excellence, the week should offer opportunities for greater exposure for all part of the academic publishing network – academics, publishers, libraries, and booksellers. Visit to find out more.

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